In Hawai’i, nothing is more synonymous with the islands, food-wise, than shaved ice. Also called shave ice or ice shave, don’t mistake these frozen treats for snow cones. Snow cones often contain coarse pieces of ice and lack toppings.
Hawaiian shave ice is also different from the Korean bingsu and Taiwanese shaved snow (雪花冰 / xue hua bing). Both of these treats often contain toppings that you might eat with a large spoon on top. Large pieces of mango, strawberry, or mochi are all common to find.
Hawaiian shaved ice is probably closer to Japanese shave ice (かき氷 / ka ki gou ri) with its focus on pillowy texture and flavorful syrups. What makes it a little different is the focus on tropical flavors like guava and lilikoi (passion fruit), as well as the addition of red bean (小豆 / azuki) and/or vanilla ice cream on the bottom of the bowl.
Many people will have their opinions about what the best shave ice place is in Hawaii, in particular Oahu. All of the places mentioned here are all great. Instead of simply ranking each against one another, I’ll share what I think each is best at.
Located basically across the street from Matsumoto’s on the North Shore, Haleiwa is a smaller but still well-known Hawaiian shaved ice shop called Aoki’s Shave Ice. Though it was closed for a short period, it’s now back to serve classic shave ice to the masses.
In a previous post, I recommended basically to go to either Matsumoto’s or Aoki’s based on whichever had the shorter line. Both shops are great in terms of taste. What sets this shop apart from the rest are the cup-bowls they use. Ignoring the environmental impact of plastic versus paper for a second, unlike the paper bowls that Matsumoto’s uses, these cup-bowls have presence.
When paired with the fact that each cup comes your choice of 3 different flavors, the color (and flavor) of the shave ice is bound to delight the senses. I remember specifically taking a photo of the rainbow colors the syrup made after I finished my shave ice because it was that beautiful to me.
Best All Natural Flavors
If the Obama family has a shaved ice shop they frequent, it must be good right?
All of these shave ice shops are amazing in their own ways. What sets Island Snow in Kailua apart is its focus on natural flavors. Sure, the shop has your standard syrups that are more flavorful, but there’s a subtlety to the natural flavors that I found attractive.
Anyway, where else can you give crack seed lemon peel or mountain apple a try as a shave ice flavor? Nowhere but Island Snow.
The fact that this shop also includes local ingredients as extras makes this a big plus for me. Who wouldn’t love a little Nisshodo mochi or Dave’s Macadamia Nut Ice Cream to go with their Hawaiian shave ice?
Most Flavorful and Softest Ice
If your goal is to find the best shave ice with the softest ice, head to Waiola Shave Ice. The two locations offer delicious shaved ice that is so finely shaved that it sometimes hard to see where one ice particle begins and ends. The shave ice that I got recently had the consistency of what I might describe as a super fluffy and airy sorbet (not sure this is a thing).
Go for any of the bowls, like the azuki bowl with mochi balls, and get ready to experience a soft, flavorful, refreshing experience that will leave you wanting more. As an added benefit, it’s the closest of all the locations on this list to Waikiki proper, making it even easier to try.
Not sure if tourist-friendly or family-friendly is the right word, but basically Matsumoto’s Shave Ice is warm and inviting. The way the shop is set up is kind of like a museum, gift shop, and shave ice joint in one.
The biggest reason why I say this place is tourist-friendly is because of how many flavors they have. With near 40 flavors ranging from the more vanilla, like vanilla, to more specialized, like mizore (みぞれ), Matsumoto’s Shave Ice has something for everyone.
The kids can get bubblegum flavor while your more sophisticated palate tries the Tropical combination (lilikoi, guava, and papaya).
As I check out more places in the future, I hope to update this list. If you have a favorite I should check out, don’t hesitate to let me know!